RANCHI, INDIA — My husband, David, and I are the guests at the home/guesthouse of Mrs. Bhola Singh.
She is about 75 years old — a remarkable woman, independent and deeply devotional.
Under the direction of Indira Gandhi in the late ‘50s, she brought a group of young Indian dancers to the United States on a cultural exchange.
“In those days we had to prove to the world that not everyone in India was a snake charmer,” she told me.
Her husband passed away 10 years ago, and her loyal servants have been with her for 25 years.
As a Westerner traveling in India, the concept of servants is difficult for me to accept though it is not my place, as a guest, to judge.
Susannah cooks and her husband, Kailash, manages the house and gardens. They live in a small cabin on this beautiful estate, eat well, and Mrs. Singh also pays for their teenage son’s education.
The growing prosperity in India rarely reaches the lower classes. For most, life is harsh beyond our imaginations — in comparison Susannah and Kailash live well.
I sometimes walk into the spacious kitchen singing, “Oh Susannah, won’t you cook for me? For I’ve come from California with a hunger for to eat.”
Susannah explodes in embarrassed giggling. I sense that my friendliness crosses a few subtly drawn social lines, but Susannah and I have fun together.
Our attempts to understand each other begin and end with a great many thank-yous — one of the few words she knows in English and the only one I know in Hindi.
I can’t say that we converse, but we do communicate.
One evening I didn’t eat all the food she gave me. Her gestures asked why not, so I blew out my cheeks and walked like an elephant trying to show her how fat I’d become if I did.
She laughed and laughed, but soon she walked to the table and asked sweetly, “Not good?” I reassured her with more pantomiming about how delicious the food was.
I love this woman. Susannah teaches me more than just cooking. She sings quietly while she works and always smiles.
She’s humble and does her work even when her employer or the guests are impatient, grouchy or just getting older and harder to please. She understands the concept of surrender — of the joy of serving others more than this independent, don’t-tell-me-what-to-do American woman ever will.
For 50 years, advertising in the West encouraged women to get out of the kitchen as fast as possible. Sometimes I think we see cooking as drudge work to avoid.
Today in India, marketing is geared to the growing affluent generation of modern Indian women. It sounds exactly the same as what we and our mothers were indoctrinated with in the 1950s. “Serve this premade soup in a box. It will make your children smarter and you will be a happy mother.”
Susannah’s love and attention are physical ingredients in the food she prepares.
That’s one of the things I admire about her. Serving others is her duty.
She accepts that, and it actually makes her happy. What could be more important to do in life than to feed the ones we love?
Patti Bess is a local freelance writer. You can follow her on further eating adventures in Asia and India at besspatti.wordpress.com and click Follow.